Have you given community college a fair shake? As hundreds of thousands of high school seniors walk across the stage this May in Texas, some will choose community college as the next step on their educational journey. This affordable option may be the best fit for your new grad, as well.

Show Me the Money

Community college in Texas is less than half that for public four-year colleges and one-tenth the cost of private institutions. Even students who plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree can save money by attending a year or two at community college before transferring to a university. Students can also save money by living at home.

Who Benefits?

Anyone can benefit from the cost savings of a community college, but there are some populations that seem to be a perfect match.

Young commuters. Some students are not quite ready to leave the nest. “A university is a tough place to start. It can be big, and it can be quite intimidating,” says Debi Gaitan, vice president for student success at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio.

With small classes, flexible schedules and locations close to home, community colleges can help a hesitant student gain confidence in his ability to make it on his own. Community colleges often have strong support systems to ease the transition from adolescence to the responsibilities of adulthood.

Nontraditional students. Community colleges typically accommodate a highly diverse student population. That can translate into a comfortable place for students of all backgrounds and abilities to get a start on their education.

Unlike many four-year institutions, community colleges design their course schedules for part-time and evening students. In addition, students can get extra support in basic skills such as writing, reading and mathematics—skills they’ll need to be successful in a more competitive four-year program. There may also be extra support, such as study skills training, counseling and tutoring, as well as adaptations for students with disabilities.

Certification seekers. Many respectable and well-paying professions—such as dental assistant, computer tech and auto mechanic—do not require a four-year degree, but do require certification. Community colleges provide a focused certification plan so students can get in, get certified and get a job without the extras of a four-year plan. Through connections with local businesses, community colleges keep a pulse on what positions are in high demand and what skills employers are seeking.

Lifelong learners. Not all college students fit the standard age range of 18-22. Whether brushing up on skills, pursuing a long neglected interest or working toward a career change, community college provides a path of affordable learning that does not necessarily lead to a degree. A retiree may wish to take a few writing classes. An experienced teacher may decide that he would like to learn Spanish. A young mother may want to take childhood development classes.

The Downside

If community college is so great, why doesn’t everyone go? There are, of course, drawbacks to the community college route.

The College Experience. Some students may regret missing out on the traditional college experience, including dorm life. They may also face difficulty “fitting in” later when transferring to a four-year college.

Hidden Costs. Being a college student has certain fixed costs no matter where you go. For example, the College Board estimates that a year of textbooks and materials costs about $1,200 for a full-time student. And while you may save money on room and board, you’ll still need groceries and a place to live. You’ll also need a way to get to and from classes, an expense you wouldn’t have if you were living on campus.

Lost Credits. Community college credits may not transfer to a private college or out-of-state school. If you have a specific institution and course of study planned, be sure to check ahead of time to see which courses will transfer.

Years in School. Two plus two does not always equal four. Don’t assume that two years at community college followed by two more years at a public or private institute automatically ends with a bachelor’s degree. The coursework required for a specific degree may need to be taken in succession and may take more than two years to finish. If you spend an extra year in college, you will miss out on a year of salary you could be earning.

The variety of courses available at your local community college is stunning. Whatever your interest, passion or plan, consider signing up and seeing what the buzz is all about!

Did You Know?

  • Core curriculum courses taken at a Texas community college are guaranteed to transfer to any public college or university in Texas.
  • Faculty at a community college can focus on teaching, not research or publishing.
  • Average class size for community college is 25-35, in comparison to universities, which may have classes as large as 300.
  • Many well-paying and rewarding careers require certification rather than a bachelor’s degree.

Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown mother of three school-aged children, an educator and a childbirth doula.

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